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Background: Methotrexate is endorsed to be used as first-line treatment in rheumatoid arthritis (RA). However, a large proportion of patients need additional treatment with a biological disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drug (DMARD) to adequately suppress their disease activity. A better understanding of genotypes could help to distinguish between patients with different pathogenic mechanisms. The aim of this study was therefore to identify networks of genes within DMARD-naive early RA patients associated with achieving sustained drug-free remission (sDFR) after initiating tocilizumab plus methotrexate, tocilizumab, or methotrexate therapy. Methods: Samples were used from 60 patients from the U-Act-Early study who received tocilizumab plus methotrexate, tocilizumab, or methotrexate therapy, and who achieved sDFR (≥3 months in drug-free remission until the end of the study, n = 37) after therapy was tapered and subsequently stopped, or who were not able to discontinue the therapy as controls (n = 23). Whole blood samples were collected and ribonucleic acid (RNA) was isolated from positive cluster of differentiation 4 (CD4+) and CD14+ cells and analysed using high-throughput sequencing. Weighted gene co-expression network analyses were performed to identify clusters (i.e. modules) of differently expressed genes associated with achieving sDFR and which were subsequently used for pathway analyses. Results: Network analyses within CD4+ cells identified two significant modules in the tocilizumab plus methotrexate arm and four modules in the tocilizumab and methotrexate arms, respectively (p ≤ 0.039). Important pathways in the module best correlating with achieving sDFR were in the tocilizumab plus methotrexate arm related to processes involved with transcription and translation; in the tocilizumab arm, pathways were related to migration of white blood cells and G-protein coupled receptors, and in the methotrexate arm pathways were involved with the response to a bacterial or biotic (i.e. biological material)-related stimulus. No relevant networks could be identified in the sequenced CD14+ cells. Conclusions: Within networks of co-expressed genes, several pathways were found related to achieving sDFR after initiating therapy with tocilizumab, methotrexate, or the combination. Between the three strategy arms, we identified different networks of predisposing genes which indicates that specific gene expression profiles, depending on the treatment strategy chosen, are associated with a higher chance of achieving sDFR. Trial registration: Clinicaltrials.gov, NCT01034137. Registered on 16 December 2009.
Teitsma, X. M., Jacobs, J. W. G., Mokry, M., Borm, M. E. A., Pethö-Schramm, A., van Laar, J. M., … Lafeber, F. P. J. (2017). Identification of differential co-expressed gene networks in early rheumatoid arthritis achieving sustained drug-free remission after treatment with a tocilizumab-based or methotrexate-based strategy. Arthritis Research and Therapy, 19(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13075-017-1378-x